13 Jun 2014
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The Art of Effecting Change

Bridgitt Bertram Evans is connecting artists and patrons to bring the art of today to wider public view.
Re: Ofer Nemirovsky (MBA 1986); Dan James (MBA 1986); Mark Jennings (MBA 1986); Gretchen Burke (MBA 1986); Steve Burke (MBA 1982); Marty Mannion (MBA 1985); Laurene Sperling (MBA 1982); Scott Sperling (MBA 1981); Mary Atwater (MBA 1986); Bruce Evans (MBA 1986)
by Jill Radsken

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Photo by Mark Ostow

Bridgitt Bertram Evans (MBA 1986) loves contemporary art for its aesthetic appeal, but also for its ability to challenge existing norms. And now she's transforming the industry in much the same spirit with VIA Art Fund, a new model of funding for contemporary arts.

"There's a big idea here," says Evans. "We have a chance to really impact the way people think about supporting the arts."

In the year since she launched VIA (which stands for Visionary Initiatives in Art), with cofounder Lisa Schiff, an art consultant, Evans has built a national collective of art patrons who work directly with artists to fund a variety of projects, ranging from major site-specific installations to endeavors that support the entire creative ecosystem, such as the international professional journal for curators, The Exhibitionist.

Evans, who lives in Boston with her classmate and husband, Bruce, a managing director at Summit Partners, says her connection to the contemporary art world began casually. The mother of four had taken a break from real estate development (Rouse & Associates, then AEW Capital Management) after the birth of her youngest child in 1995. Shortly thereafter, she began serving on the boards of several Boston organizations, including The Windsor School, MATCH Education, the Telluride Foundation, and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), which she describes as "all incredible, impact-oriented nonprofit organizations dedicated to serving their communities and leading the way in making lasting impact in their respective sectors."

Her involvement with the ICA sprang from her passion for collecting contemporary artists such as Glenn Ligon and Christopher Wool. "I've always had this deep interest in all things visual from product design to architecture," she says. "I've spent the last 10 to 15 years educating myself on art history and contemporary artists."

Evans's philanthropic work also extends to HBS, where she and Bruce, both financial aid recipients, paid forward the assistance they received in the form of an endowed scholarship fund for students coming from their alma maters (Miami University of Ohio and Vanderbilt University). They've also taken a leadership role at the school, serving on the Board of Dean's Advisors and as cochairs of their 25th Reunion, and as early founding donors of the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab).

"Looking back over the last five or so years, when much of the world faced financial uncertainty and many negative voices were directed at the business sector, I am grateful to HBS for stepping forward and providing innovation in the business school curriculum but also with such exciting initiatives such as the i-lab," she says.

In 2008, Evans returned to the work force as an independent real estate developer. She hung up a shingle at a second-floor, walk-up office on Newbury Street—a far cry from the suburban mega-office-building craze of the mid-1980s to early 1990s—and hired an assistant.

"The first compelling development opportunity that crossed my desk was a hotel in Telluride, Colorado. My local partners and I gutted, upgraded, and re-branded the property, and still own and operate Hotel Columbia today," she recalls.

But the art world, too, seemed in need of drastic change—and VIA, which started in England as a way to bring new art to public museums by way of private funding—was an idea that Evans found intriguing.

"Clearly, this has struck a chord," she says. "Quite simply, we are activating a new sector for engagement with the arts. Traditionally, patrons have been one or even two steps removed from the artist themselves. Why is that? At VIA, we work directly with artists, meeting as a group to learn, discuss, and vote on which projects we will support. In a sector where social impact is amorphous, education is imperative to engagement and support."

While VIA espouses an ethos of disintermediation, Evans runs the operation according to the rigors of an investment fund. And that's where her HBS education really comes in.

"It was the training in how to think about your approach to opportunities," Evans says, recalling a business strategy class with Professor Michael Porter in which she learned how to create successful frameworks. "At VIA, we're doing the same thing."

A case in point was artist Doug Aitken's high-reaching Station to Station, a "cultural happening" that took the form of a nine-car, cross-country train ride that brought a group of artists, musicians, and creators to 10 cities to perform for and interact with local communities. "The outreach of this project was incredible," says Evans. "The artist literally brought art to the people, both physically and virtually, through an unprecedented social media campaign. For our support, we asked Doug to create a lasting artwork that we could donate to a cultural institution in one of those cities.

"We either go very deep with an artist or fund ideas that support the industry in an overarching way," Evans notes.

To accomplish these goals, Evans has raised funds from a combination of private foundations and individuals. In less than a year, 40 members—including classmates and fellow alumni Ofer Nemirovsky, Mary and Dan James, Mark Jennings (all MBA 1986); Gretchen and Steve Burke (MBA 1986 and 1982); Marty Mannion (MBA 1985); and Laurene and Scott Sperling (MBA 1982 and 1981)—have joined VIA with minimum donations of $10,000 per year, a response so enthusiastic Evans nearly had to tamp down fundraising to get infrastructure in place.

"There is an appetite for innovation and creativity right now," she says, "and people want to explore the current human condition through art. There's a movement and you can't stop it."

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Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1986, Section D

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